A Thumbs Down Book Review
Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating
By Walter Willet
Review by Sally Fallon
In case you’re not impressed enough with the title, the Harvard seal is included on the cover with its “Veritas.” No false modesty here. The author proposes a modified food pyramid based on conclusions drawn from the Nurses Health Study. The gist of this research design is that the nutritional habits of the healthiest nurses have been translated into Dr. Willett’s “Healthy Eating Pyramid”–one that has a fair chance of replacing the current USDA version.
Before considering nutritional intake, the author recommends daily exercise and “weight control” as the base of the pyramid. Fine advice but often difficult to achieve.
We then “progress” to the next level of the pyramid, shared by whole grain foods and plant oils. Many, but not all, benefit from including an abundance of whole grains in their diets. We are not informed of the dangers of phytates and how to minimize them, however.
Most alarming is the recommendation to consume vegetable oils frequently and indiscriminately. Olive oil gets the same billing with corn, soy, canola and safflower oils. In a book that invokes Harvard’s name so many times, I expected impressive data to support such recommendations (especially following intemperate claims such as “. . . there is solid proof that reducing saturated fats with unsaturated fats will . . . lower rates of heart disease”) (italics added). I was eager to see the proof. He didn’t offer any.
The notion of balancing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is dismissed. We’re told that the rate of heart disease will go up if people start reducing their omega-6 fatty acids–the kind found in commercial vegetable oils. Actually, as Americans have increased their intake of omega-6 vegetable oils, heart disease has soared. The author cites the Lyons study to support the benefits of “Mediterranean” diets for survivors of heart attacks but fails to mention that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 was controlled in that study.
Any doctor who goes to medical school will have learned in Biochemistry 101 that polyunsaturated oils contribute to cancer, heart disease, inflammation and aging. Willett seems to have forgotten the basics in his bid for political correctness–the vegetable oil industry is sure to love this new version of the pyramid.
And the rest of the pyramid is also a paragon of political correctness. Willett recommends lots of fruits and vegetables (except for high-glycemic-index vegetables like potatoes), followed by nuts and legumes. Then, fish, poultry and eggs.
Willett predictably attacks full-fat dairy products, blaming saturated fat for prostate cancer and ovarian cancer. Little evidence is offered to support these claims and none of it is conclusive. Willett says saturated fat is bad because it contains high levels of calories–but what about all those vegetable oils, they are just as loaded with calories. In fact, saturated fats like butter and coconut oil contain slightly lower levels of calories than polyunsatruated oils.
The “evil” end of the pyramid is shared by red meat and butter, on one side, and refined carbohydrates on the other. To his credit, Willett highlights the threats posed by increased soy consumption and refined carbohydrates.
Categorical statements, such as his treatment of saturated fats as inherently harmful, are easily refuted if you can find populations (presumably other than nurses) that defy the statements. This is the heart of my quarrel with Dr. Willett’s book. If he had read the work of those who came before him (such as Weston Price) he would be aware that many populations have done splendidly on a diet high in saturated fats, animal products, etc. He would know that consumption of processed vegetable oil (except for extra virgin olive oil) is a modern experiment, and the experiment has resulted in an epidemic of heart disease and other inflammatory illnesses.
The author alludes to traditional diets in skeptical tones, opining that there is no such thing as wisdom in traditional diets. Thanks to one of the most highly-endowed nutrition departments in the world (endowed with funding from the processed food industry) we can be saved from the “fate” of eating what has nurtured countless generations in the past.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2003.